Monster Expedition starts off from a weird premise: in a Victorian steampunk fantasy world, rich people are entertained by exhibits known as the Carnival of Monsters. Wild creatures are displayed to fill the attendants both with awe for the might of the savage world, and deep and smug satisfaction for the human superiority than places us so fundamentally above it. That, however, is the story of another game. In Monster Expedition, you play as the brave heroes that must capture these monsters in their natural habitats to put them in cages, and rake in good money.
The game is played through a series of ten scenarios that, with the exception of the very last, run for 8 rounds each, so it’s pretty fast as rounds never linger. In each round, you must pick one of three biomes (air, land, or sea), and hunt there for the creatures in the display that match this biome. To hunt creatures, you need firepower, which is granted to you by the dice. So, you roll the dice. The results can be sorted into “sets” of dice showing the same value. At this point up, you must pick one set of dice sharing the same value, and reserve the corresponding dice. Then, you can either be content with what you got or re-roll the remainder of the dice pool. Then you can reserve another set, but only if you don’t yet have dice of that value in your reserve.
What happens if you cannot reserve anything, because all the dice you rolled show values that you already reserved? Well, then you “bust” and must discard the dice of the highest value in your reserve. And you keep going: either you pass or re-roll the remaining dice of your pool. Once you pass, the total value of reserved dice gives you the firepower. You can then hunt animals of the biome and capture them, as long as the total value over your preys does not exceed your firepower. And that’s about it.
There is a key thing I haven’t yet explained though: your dice pool is slowly increasing as you play. It increases for two reasons: for each biome, you have a corresponding camp. This camp specifies how many dice you roll for this biome, but it can be upgraded, enabling you to roll more dice. Upgrading camps is automatic if you reserve dice of a certain value during your hunt: the three different biomes are upgraded with dice showing, respectively, 1, 2, or 3. Next, the monsters that you hunt usually grant you an ability, either to upgrade camps or, for the most part, through a kind of “set collection”: if you have a set of monsters from each biome, you permanently gain one more die as well. So, in solo mode, it’s a bit of a race to upgrade your dice pool and become powerful enough to fulfill your objective before the time elapses.
The scenarios are a bit repetitive, and will rarely change your basic strategy (upgrade as fast as possible, grab monsters). The first 6 or 7 scenarios are super easy – I won them all on my first attempt. Scenario 8 is basically luck-driven: you must get a firepower of 35 or more at any point to win. So the idea is to upgrade fast enough to max out the dice pool and then put your faith in probabilities to get this score with the dice. Scenario 10 has remained beyond my reach: you must get rid of all monsters on display, and for this, you have slightly more rounds than usual, but it still relies on getting crazy scores several times in a row (with some subtleties here and there).
This game is, on a fundamental level, fun. That is, if you like dice rolling. Although there is no way to mitigate what you roll, the structure of the round is such that even a very bad roll doesn’t completely screw you over – you just reserve one set and re-roll the rest. Still, sometimes, it’s a bit infuriating, especially in the later missions where the timing is so tight that a bad roll basically equates to a need to start from scratch. Granted, games are really fast (5-10 minutes I would say), but still, going over the exact same gaming arc every time gets annoying pretty soon.
Which is basically the problem of the game. You always do the same thing. There is very little margin for creative play or actual decisions. You very soon figure out what to do – at least I did for the 9 first missions, and they all worked the same. For the 10th, I tried and tried and tried and tried, and gave up. At some point, you feel like your success only hinges upon one or two rolls. The temptation to cheat becomes great because you know you couldn’t do better, and you don’t want to restart just because the dice messed up.
In the end, I didn’t keep the game. I certainly enjoyed it for a while, but in the end, it became frustrating and tiring. Sure, I wasn't playing anything but this game, so I might have gotten burnt with it a little; and probably, if the theme had been nicer, I would have kept it. But, honestly. Poaching wild creatures for the entertainment of the upper society? Why would they come up with such awful themes? I grew up playing games where I was saving the animals (my grandfather had houseruled Wildlife Adventure into a co-operative “save the endangered species” game), so this certainly feels jarring to me. Actually, what saved the game to me is, paradoxically, that it’s rather themeless, the monsters all feeling like a number printed on a card (and there is rarely any other difference between them). So you quickly forget all about the theme and just get carried away by the abstract mechanics and the rather nice art for the monsters.
One last thing: before selling it, I contemplated its multiplayer potential (since the solo mode cannot find the balance between too easy as you exploit the available game mechanics, and too frustratingly hard because success relies on a rare streak of luck). It turned out to be even worse. There are very few interactions, and you just take turns rolling your pool of dice and playing your little game of reserving sets. And the game gets about four or five times longer than in solo: it just never seems to stop, lasting for more than 20 rounds, during which you are at max, for the most part, only hoping for good luck. It felt really repetitive and sluggish. Still, it’s a beautifully produced game, with marvelous dice, pretty art, classy cardboard tokens, high-quality cards, and, how delightful, it all comes in a small box. That’s the true curiosity worth hunting for!